America, Bad Journalism, Dudeism, Fake News, media, Mediocrity, Serious Writing, Thoughts

What ‘The Big Lebowski’ Teaches Us About Media Bias

In one of the most enduring scenes that ever came out of Hollywood cinema, there lies a rather deep hidden meaning. It becomes painfully obvious once you see through it. And when you do, you will appreciate the script and the context that much more. The scene is from the movie The Big Lebowski and features Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.

Here is the context (SPOILERS ahead!):

The Dude has failed in the task entrusted to him by an old billionaire. The task is to deliver a large amount of ransom money in exchange for Bunny – the trophy wife of the said billionaire. He has instead lost that money and the old man castigates him for his ineptitude by showing him the consequences of his failure – which involves a toe that is  believed to belong to the said kidnapping victim. Disappointed with himself and worried about the victim, The Dude then ‘discusses’ the situation with his buddy Walter Sobchak. Here it is in full:

WALTER
That wasn’t her toe.

DUDE
Whose toe was it, Walter?

WALTER
How the fuck should I know? I do
know that nothing about it indicates–

DUDE
The nail polish, Walter.

WALTER
Fine, Dude. As if it’s impossible
to get some nail polish, apply it to
someone else’s toe–

DUDE
Someone else’s–where the fuck are
they gonna–

WALTER
You want a toe? I can get you a
toe, believe me. There are ways,
Dude. You don’t wanna know about
it, believe me.

DUDE
But Walter–

WALTER
I’ll get you a toe by 3 o’ clock–with nail polish. These
fucking amateurs. They send us a
toe, we’re supposed to shit our-
selves with fear. Jesus Christ. My
point is–

DUDE
They’re gonna kill her, Walter, and
then they’re gonna kill me–

WALTER
Well that’s just, that’s the stress
talking, Dude. So far we have what
looks to me like a series of
victimless crimes–

DUDE
What about the toe?

WALTER
FORGET ABOUT THE FUCKING TOE!

Essentially, the Dude has come to believe that the toe that is shown to him by Jeffrey Lebowski (the Billionaire) does indeed belong to ‘Bunny’ – the Billionaire’s wife – the apparent victim of a kidnapping. But Walter is clearly having none of it. He firmly believes that the toe is another in a series of ‘victimless crimes’ that are done by ‘fucking amateurs’! (Of course, in the end Walter turns out to be spot on!)

Which all brings us to a simple question.

Why did the Dude believe that the toe did indeed belong to Bunny? 

On the face of it, the apparent ‘proof’ consisted not of direct evidence of the identity of the victim, but instead consisted of an indicator – one which needs to be taken at face value without questioning in order to arrive at the suggested conclusion – that the toe does indeed belong to Bunny. It is this very ‘indicator’ nature of the evidence that Walter Sobchak questions and confidently declares that he could generate the same evidence by 3 o’ clock that same day (with nail polish!)!

The Dude believed the initial assertion (that Bunny was harmed because of his ineptitude in not delivering the money) not because of the ‘proof’ (a severed toe) that was presented to him. Instead, he started off by taking the initial assertion at face value without questioning, and then used the ‘proof’ to confirm this belief. The narrative was setup in such a way for the Dude that he just assumed the initial assertion was true and perceived whatever ‘proof’ he was then presented to simply confirm this assertion – even if that ‘proof’ was simply ‘indicative’ in nature.

Now where else have we all seen this? Where have we seen a topic being presented in such a way that it makes an assertion first and then uses primarily ‘indicative’ evidence to backup its claims?

There are a good number of ‘news’ websites and print media that utilize this very technique to sell stories and content. Many headlines from such organizations are usually articles involving a recent quote by a personality of some significance, or one or two facts that include numbers. This is then typically followed by a description of the context. But there is a sub-category here. This group of articles contain something more. It is usually subtle, but it is there nonetheless.

These articles contain a narrative that interpret the said development in a very specific way. And they do this not by offering any hard facts, but by providing evidence that are at best ‘indicative’ in nature. These articles usually contain a catchy headline that typically signals something to be feared or worried about. The article then starts off by repeating the assertion made in the headline in a more elaborate manner. Then it goes on to the actual quote or fact(oid) which typically forms a very minor part of the full article. Then the article attempts to reference previous similar developments in an effort to forge an apparent pattern – all spelling doom to varying degrees. Then the article goes on to make statements that involve the use of modal verbs such as ‘may’, ‘can’, ‘might’, ‘could’ indicating the possibility of further bad news. And then, finally, at the end of it all, to tie it all together (I had to obviously use the pun!) and to bring a sense of authenticity and confirmation to their idle speculations, they ‘reveal the toe’!

The ‘toe’ typically involves a quote by someone directly unrelated to the actual development, but one who holds a position of some significance in some industry, academia or organization that would entitle him/her to have opinions on the matter under consideration. The bigger the said person’s significance/position, higher the level of authenticity that is perceived to be on the speculations. It is important to note that these quotes are not something that is made by these persons out of their own volition without being specifically asked for. This is almost always a situation where the quotes are actively sought out by the person writing the article, and these quotes are then included in the article to provide a sense of truth and authenticity (and general concern) to the speculative inferences/statements made preceding them. (They send us a toe, we’re supposed to shit ourselves with fear.) In a sense, the person writing the article has already built a narrative (without many facts to support them) and then looks for quotes from ‘experts’ or ‘analysts’ to corroborate the same. Of course, nowadays, these ‘experts’ are dime a dozen. (You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me.) So it is another question altogether whether every single ‘expert’ he/she contacts provides quotes that corroborate their narrative, or if he/she only includes those experts’ quotes that does corroborate their speculation.

**********

See this Dec 25th article on CNN Money about Brexit for a good demonstration of the above idea. Also go to this Dec 13th article by the same writer on the same topic where he appears to have some information that doesn’t necessarily support the narrative in the article in the Dec 25th article. Also observe how he has cleverly left out those pieces of information in the Dec 25th article.

***********

So at the end of it all, it is simply a case of the writer making an initial speculative assertion and then ‘revealing the toe’ to backup their claims. So the question you, as a reader, have to ask is, “Am I being presented actual proof based on hard facts, or am I being ‘shown the toe’?” If you suspect the latter, then you know the ‘news article’ is nothing more than clickbait garbage. If it is the product of actual investigative journalism, then you will probably see a lot more information in the form of hard facts backing up the said claims. It is up to you to actively seek out the difference.

In this day and age of information/noise overload, if you even mildly suspect that you are being ‘shown the toe’, then it very likely is indeed just garbage. You should then be wary of any article from that particular source of ‘news’. This is a very simple and practical approach to consuming news media today and to distance ourselves away from fake news, pre-determined narratives, and idle speculation masquerading as truth. And if enough people do this on a regular basis, then we might still have some hope left for humanity’s progress.

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Alcohol, America, Des Moines, Music, My sense of Humour, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts

Taking a Dudeist Vacation

An often denied fact concerns the accumulation of stress during any vacation. Be it a trip to a national park, a visit to a big city, a hike through the woods, a road trip – vacations usually consist of stress filled days that are stitched together midst the experiences of visiting new places or hanging out with friends/family. A fair amount of planning has already gone into the vacation: we visit these places on day one, drive to here on day two, meetup with friends on day three hiking, camp and hike further on day four, drive back on day five, take flight back home on day six. Feel free to make up your own schedule. We all have.

We want to ‘cover’ as many places as we can jam into our schedule. Consequently, this ends up demanding a lot more effort in getting to those places and ‘covering’ them while we are there. We want to put up photographs on Facebook showing us at as many different locations as possible. We want to tick all those places off our bucket list – whether they are on it or not. Life is so short after all…..right?

Getting started on a vacation with an agenda is what most people do. There is a certain expectation of returns for all the investment you are putting into this vacation. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps us see the places we always wanted to see in a timely and economical fashion. But it is also important to recognize the role of the agenda in building up stress levels during any vacation.

And that is what I decided to avoid last week when I took a few days off work. No agenda, no expectations, no stress: the Dudeist-Vacation

Because being The Dude is awesome

I took a Wednesday off work and this is a list of things I did in Des Moines that day:

1. Spend 2 hours eating breakfast at Perkup Cafe

2. Cash checks.

3. Visit the library, read Dune for an hour and rent 5 audiobooks for my drive the next day.

4. Watch Chelsea draw with Galatasaray in the Champions League at the Royal Mile drinking beer and eating lunch.

5. Come back home and watch a couple of episodes of True Detective and listen to a couple of LPs.

6. Pack.

There is not one item in the list that can be even remotely classified as ‘constructive’. It was one of the most awesome days in recent memory. A complete day of doing absolutely nothing that required me to acknowledge any stress at all. Just like The Dude lives.

This inspired me to extend the same thinking for the rest of my vacation. So when I reached Ann Arbor the next day, I had absolutely nothing on my mind that I wanted to do. Sure I wanted to see my friend successfully defend his PhD. But that was it. Other than that, I was just hanging out doing absolutely nothing.

I drove to Detroit on Saturday to visit a couple of my other good friends. The only agenda I had for that trip was to visit the Motown museum. Other than that, all I told my friend was that I wanted to drink some beer and buy some records. And that is exactly what I did: drink beer at a brewery and buy some records at a record store. To kill a couple of hours, my friend and I hung out at a coffee shop chatting. Then I ate dinner and went back to Ann Arbor. That was it. That was how I spent my only day in Detroit. Barely any agenda and still extremely satisfying.

My friend  (now with a DR. before his name) and I then drove to Chicago because it is on my way back to Des Moines. And also because Chicago is awesome. It is an even more awesome place to do absolutely nothing and just hang out with no agenda. All I wanted to do was meet a friend, drink some beer, eat some deep dish pizza and buy some records. And that is what we did. Met a friend, drank some beer, ate deep dish pizza and bought a lot of records. We also celebrated his PhD at the Signature Lounge on top of Hancock tower with a glass of Glenmorangie on the rocks overlooking the night view of the entire city from up top. I stayed one more night and went to a downtown breakfast place in the morning and just sat there by myself for two hours doing absolutely nothing. And then I drove back to Des Moines. Never visited any tourist attraction, never did any sightseeing, and did not even look up any ‘things to do in Chicago’.

It was the best vacation I could have had under those circumstances. For a week, I did not even have to acknowledge the idea of stress – even minuscule amounts of it. There was nothing that could go wrong when you were doing absolutely nothing. And I was able to do that because I had absolutely no agenda set for my vacation. No expectations, no plans – just a whole bunch of doing nothing. More importantly, it was a whole bunch of doing nothing in different places – which is awesome.

After I came back, I realized that anytime I did absolutely nothing for extended periods of time is always awesome. You should try it too. It would be important to identify those particular activities you would want to do that do not require any set agenda whatsoever. To me, apparently, they include eating breakfast, drinking beer and buying records. It is just something that you do because you like it and you don’t care how it turns out. There is absolutely nothing at stake when you are doing these activities. Only you know what those activities are. And once you know what they are, you should just take a vacation doing those things – wherever you want to. For all I care, take a flight half way across the country to just sit at a coffee shop and do nothing for an entire day. (That would be an awesome idea by the way).

All in all, it is an extremely satisfying and fulfilling experience to just be able to do nothing and continue to live a normal life. Also, the very act of doing nothing for extended periods of time tells you that “nothing’s fucked!”. The Dude’s lifestyle is not just for a character in a Coen Brothers movie. It is an increasingly overlooked way of life for us every day men and women. Maybe we will never be able to live like The Dude every single day of our lives. But, at the very least, when we decide to take time off, we can remember to ask ourselves the question:

Always ask the question

“What would The Dude do?”

And then decide to do absolutely nothing. Because it is always awesome to be The Dude.

*************************************

PS: After this experience, I have decided to take a weekday off from work every 2-3 weeks and do absolutely nothing. I won’t be at home, but I intend to do absolutely nothing constructive the entire day. It is like my day of rest.